To The Editor:

Storing coal ash from coal burning power plants alongside a major river — or, even worse, in the floodplain of a major river — is an invitation for disaster. We have only to remember last February’s tragic spill at Duke Energy’s Dan River plant near Eden, N.C., to witness the potential risk.

Missouri is 16th in the nation for coal-burning power plants and produces 2.68 million tons of coal ash per year. The state has 32 coal ash collection lagoons at 14 generating facilities; 21 of them are over 30 years old and unlikely to have safeguards like liners and leachate collection systems.

According to the EPA, Missouri’s coal ash is equivalent to 35,000 bathtubs full — enough waste to bury an area the size of Washington’s National Mall in a 20-foot-deep layer of sludge. Yet the state of Missouri allows these storage facilities to escape safety regulations, provides minimal oversight, and requires no meaningful testing around the dump sites.

Fourteen of Missouri’s coal ash lagoons are over 25 feet high and impound more than 500 acre-feet of waste, yet state regulators have inspected only one lagoon in the past five years. Missouri has not assigned a hazard rating to a single coal ash impoundment in the state nor does the state require regular groundwater monitoring or inspections by dam safety officials.

Finally, and most alarming of all, Missouri does not prohibit dumping directly into the water table, nor does it require bonds to ensure cleanup at coal ash landfills.

Missouri’s Department of Natural Resources has known since 1992 that a 154-acre unlined ash lagoon at Ameren’s Labadie plant has been leaking at the rate of some 50,000 gallons per day. DNR has not required groundwater monitoring or cleanup despite the threat to a local population that relies on groundwater for drinking and agricultural uses.

As a matter of fact, DNR has turned a blind eye on Ameren’s Labadie plant, allowing it to operate under a 1994 NPDES permit which technically expired in 1999 without ever issuing an updated renewal permit that would require monitoring and cleanup. Without any testing of the heavy-metal-laden wastewater from the lagoons, DNR is allowing daily unlimited discharge directly into the Missouri River.

Now is the time for new and effective regulatory programs in Missouri as well as federal regulations to ensure safety certainty. DNR is currently studying Ameren’s application to build a coal ash landfill in the floodplain adjacent to its Labadie plant.

DNR should take this opportunity to correct past negligence, to do comprehensive testing of the groundwater near existing waste lagoons, and to protect the public from further potential contamination by prohibiting the deposit of coal ash waste in so vulnerable a location.